Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Starter trials...0-24 hours

After working with artisanal style bread doughs, with very high hydration levels, and studying Tartine Bread, the beautiful, natural leavened bread book by Chad Robertson, I began developing a starter.

Naturally leavened bread is not made with commercial yeast.  The yeast is wild, and is grown as a culture, or, as it's more commonly known, a starter.  At a basic level, it's the process of fermentation of water and flour.  The microorganisms present in the flour and water eventually begin to ferment into a wildly active yeast culture that can be used to make beautifully textured breads with complex and well developed flavors, from the mild, to the strong and sharp.

Before commercial yeast was developed, this is how bread was made.  Bread bakers of old made bread using this long process, and taught their apprentices how to do so, as well.

There is no question bread baking is an art form, and when you use naturally developed leavens, it takes on a whole other dimension.  I'm fascinated by how things work.  I always have been, and researching the process of naturally leavened bread was fascinating to me.  How does it work?  It wasn't enough to know that it would work, I wanted to know how and why it worked.

I stumbled upon several articles about starter, and a long line of people who reported difficulties, marginal results, and many, many failures.  Why?  It's water and flour.  How hard can it be?

Yesterday I decided to do a little starter experiment.  Chad's starter is simple, and it's the one I have followed.  With some mixed results, I became obsessed with finding out what made this process so variable.

In my research, I came across an article, written by a microbiologist, who had gone on her own starter journey, and she took it to a whole new level, making the process of developing starter much more clear, with a well articulated explanation of the bacteria required for a yeast culture, how those bacteria play together, and why they work.  I'm grateful for her teachings.

Equipped with some new information, I decided to run my own trials.  I used three combinations, and two different processes.

Batch one was equal parts bread and whole wheat flours, with enough tap water mixed in to make a thick batter. In batch two, I used the same flour blend, but I used distilled water vs. tap water.  Where we live, tap water tastes great, and fresh.  My starter experiments would change my opinion, but more on that in a minute.

The third batch was pineapple juice and whole wheat flour.

In the first two batches, nothing is done to the starter, aside from letting it sit, until it becomes active on its own, reportedly, in 2-7 days.  In the third batch, the blend is fed every day, starting from day two.

I took photos this morning, after a full 24 hours.  The results were interesting.

Batch one (tap water and the bread flour/whole wheat flour blend):

This batch of tap water starter does not look particularly appetizing, and after looking at the batch with distilled water (below), I began to see my 'mountain fresh' tap water a bit differently.

Batch two (distilled water and the bread flour/whole wheat flour blend):

I found the distilled batch far more appealing after 24 hours.

Batch three (pineapple juice and whole wheat flour, using a much smaller amount to begin with):

This batch looks far more palatable at this point, and even though I expect it to begin to ferment, as well, after 24 hours, it's far easier to look at.

The difference in results, in just 24 hours, from tap water to distilled water, were eye opening.  I have not given up on the tap water batch, and I won't, but its unappealing appearance gives me pause.  Prior to reading Debra Wink's article, I would have wondered about the tap water batch, but with her findings etched in my mind, I'm not worried at all.  As a matter of fact, all three batches are following her findings, to the letter.

I am fermenting my starters at approximately 65 degrees.  Onto part two.

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